Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Follow the Money

An Atlanta-area public school teacher and parent recently wrote in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution about her frustration with and questions about the ideas of the National Governors Association on school reform.

Besides lamenting the “destruction of our children that is being carried out under the sanctimonious and specious names of accountability and reform,” Cindy Lutenbacher advises us to follow the money, just as Deep Throat advised Woodward and Bernstein in their untangling of the Watergate scandal. In fact, most people are not aware of the enormous influence of money — both to advance an agenda and to profit on its implementation — that is contaminating reform efforts.

Coincidentally (not!), the folks making the big bucks tend to be politically appointed by those who create these mandates. Plenty of money has been raked in by firms that create standardized tests, or score them, or offer test prep for them, or provide mandated tutoring services when schools do not make adequate yearly progress on them. An amazing percentage of such companies came from Texas during the Bush II years.

Other reform efforts, which are not strictly mandated but are sources of considerable funding for schools, have been similarly corrupt in implementation. For example, Edward Kame’enui and Sharon Vaughn “earned” well over a million dollars as directors of technical-assistance centers that advised states on meeting the Reading First program’s strict guidelines for its billion dollars in grants per year during the second Bush administration. They did this by prescribing reading programs that garnered them hundreds of thousands of dollars a year apiece in royalties — a glaring, if lucrative, conflict of interest.

A third interesting source of cash-related influence comes from what Diane Ravitch calls the Billionaire Boys’ Club: the richest folks in America, through their foundations, have been driving the school reform agenda since before the turn of the century. Grants from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (Microsoft money), the Walton Family Foundation (Wal-Mart money), and the Eli and Edith Broad Foundation (homebuilding and insurance money) embody their billionaires’ aim to transform education using the principles that made them successful in business. Their intent is to bring market-driven competition and incentives to bear on education. Choice and privatization are assumed to produce a better “return on investment.”

They’ve succeeded — not in achieving their goals, but in setting the policy agenda from the federal level down to the individual school level. No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top both prescribe reforms based on the theories of these and other very rich men (many from the dot-com boom of the 1990s).

The irony is that, while demanding accountability of teachers, schools, districts, and states, they are accountable to no one. No one elected them. No one can tell them they are mistaken. As Ravitch notes, “to date, not a single book has been published that has questioned their education strategies.” You know why? Because no one can afford to alienate the goose that lays the golden eggs.

What about those strategies?

A prime example of what can go wrong with this foundation-driven approach is Bill Gates’s determination to replace comprehensive high schools with the small (under 400-student) high schools that he thinks are more effective. “Rigor, relevance, and relationship” in these more intimate environments would cure all ills. What few folks realized, in the mad scramble for Gates Foundation grants, was that there was no research proving that small schools are better.

I attended a small high school myself (350 students), so I know their limitations. I’m not talking about the two sports offered, the lack of any art or music beyond a single choir, or the foreign language taught by the unqualified (wherein my French I teacher told us to ignore the accent marks that are fundamental to learning French). No, all those could be considered extras. I’m talking about the weakness in core academic offerings. While my school was excellent in many respects, I was woefully under-prepared for college in science and math, because a school of that size simply did not have the resources to offer advanced physics and calculus classes. (I should mention that, even when two or three small schools co-existed within the same rearranged large building, the terms of the Gates grants prevented them from collaborating to synergize their efforts.)

There had been (1997) research bearing out my concern regarding inadequate curriculum in very small high schools and recommending 600–900 students as a more ideal size. Just this month, a report seemed to find success in the small high schools in New York City, but critics have noted that the improved graduation rate and achievement touted may be illusory, since English language–learners and students with disabilities were (illegally) excluded from these schools for the first few years, and since the well documented “grade-inflation” on the Regents Exams means their results are no longer correlated with those on the SAT or the NAEP exams.

After poor results (several prime-example schools closed in failure) and more than a billion dollars in grants, the Gates Foundation abandoned its small schools advocacy in 2008 and moved to promoting charter schools, pay for performance, Common Core national standards and their joined-at-the-hip national tests, and comprehensive data systems to make all this “accountability” possible. Once again, the strategies preceded or contradicted the research on effectiveness.

Similarly, the Broad Foundation has invested heavily where there were no elected school boards to interfere (in New York City and Oakland after mayoral and state takeovers) or where the board was amenable (San Diego, for a while). Eli Broad wants to run schools as he did his businesses: autocratically. The fact that many of his investments did not pay off to his satisfaction has not discouraged him. Like Bill Gates, he just moves to different places and strategies — with all the strategies seemingly dictated by his corporation-formed “gut instincts.”

It is amazing, when you realize these do-gooder entrepreneurs made their money through creative innovation, to realize that they are now enforcing a focus only on basic skills assessed by standardized tests for a generation of our children. Their philosophy permeates the federal and state departments of education, politicians of all stripes, the foundations that fund research and programming, and even the journals (such as Education Week) that should be judging the true effectiveness of their prescribed strategies — all of whom are beholden to their money.

As Cindy asks, “For the sake of our kids, when will we revolt?”

Saturday, June 26, 2010

A solution to the culture wars?

One of the essentials that is largely missing in American education is a common, logical, comprehensive, and sequential curriculum. Our long history of local control and community standards in K–12 schooling has much to do with that. But I believe the primary reason every state, if not every community, “does its own thing” is that it is too difficult to reach consensus on exactly what should be taught.

The apotheosis of cultural infighting over textbook content occurs every few years in Texas, when the State Board of Education reviews and prescribes standards for another area of curriculum. In Texas, the board’s word is law regarding exactly what will and will not be taught. In the recent past, they have mandated phonics over “whole language” (when the correct prescription would have been “both”), explicit challenge of the theories of evolution and The Big Bang, and more emphasis on computational skills than theoretical knowledge in math. This year, in the opinion of many, they took up the rewriting of American history.

No wonder there is little agreement on what a common national curriculum should be. Every choice of inclusion or omission seems to elevate or denigrate knowledge that is important to someone. Is there any way around these culture wars?

Cognitive psychologist and University of Virginia professor Daniel Willingham thinks so. In his book Why Don’t Students Like School?: A Cognitive Scientist Answers Questions About How the Mind Works and What It Means for the Classroom, he rephrases the question: “What should students be taught? is equivalent not to What knowledge is important? but rather to What knowledge yields the greatest cognitive benefit?

How does content matter to learning? It depends upon the subject. In the area of reading, there is a phenomenon known as the “fourth-grade slump.” Children from disadvantaged backgrounds tend to do as well as more privileged children in the early years of reading instruction, when the emphasis is on decoding skills. By fourth grade, however, the mechanics of reading have largely been mastered and the focus switches to comprehension. The problem with comprehension is that it is strongly tied to background knowledge; in that, children from richer environments have a definite edge, so a gap in reading test scores opens then and widens every year thereafter.

Background knowledge is important because no writer ever says everything she knows on a topic. We leave out what we assume our audience already knows — otherwise, writing would be both boring and too comprehensive. No one will take the time to plow through overly long expositions of what he already knows. So, if you don’t know what has been left unsaid, you can be in real trouble.

All of us have had experiences where an expert did not share knowledge we needed because it was so obvious to him that it did not occur to him that we would not know it. Decades ago, for example, I was infuriated by math problems in Scholastic Aptitude Tests that assumed I was familiar with certain sports jargon, when it might as well have been Greek to me. In the early 1990s, when my first university email account was accessed through a UNIX mail program, the “cheat sheet” directions were useless to me until I discovered that commands only worked at the beginning of a new line — a fact that had been way too obvious to programmers to be worth mentioning. The same frustration and poor performance dogs the child who knows nothing of the content of a reading selection, compared to her more well-read fellow student. She must work hard to decode new vocabulary and try to tease its meaning from context, and she will have large gaps in understanding where prior knowledge has been assumed.

What does this have to do with curriculum design? When it comes to reading, Willingham argues, we must concede that “much of what writers assume their readers know seems to be touchstones of the culture of dead white males.” Unless and until our culture changes and writers stop making those assumptions, he advocates teaching that material to our students so that all can read the “same breadth of material with the same depth of comprehension” as the more privileged kids. In other words, giving in to traditional cultural biases is better for our children cognitively—at least until the day we stop weaving metaphors and phrases from the Bible, Shakespeare, and Mother Goose into our everyday language. Children need the culture’s common background knowledge in order to become good readers. That notion could reduce our fights over the content of the books we call readers. (And, of course, children without books in their homes must be given plenty of them to read, so that they can catch up in general knowledge.)

But what about everything else? Willingham gives a different answer to “What should students know of science, of history, of mathematics? The question is different because the uses of knowledge in these subject areas are different from the uses of knowledge for general reading. Reading requires relatively shallow knowledge.” Just knowing the definition of words (such as “savannah,” “cheetah,” and “eland”) will facilitate reading about an African ecosystem. But deep understanding of the interdependence of species and fauna and weather calls for knowledge of ideas as well as vocabulary. “Cognitive science leads to the rather obvious conclusion that students must learn the concepts that come up again and again — the unifying ideas of each discipline. Some educational thinkers have suggested that a limited number of ideas should be taught in great depth…. From the cognitive perspective, that makes sense.”

This perspective adds another voice to argument that American K–12 education should retreat from the mention-everything approach that is widely derided as “a mile wide and an inch deep.” What good does it do to “cover” so much material if we remember none of it? I recall nothing about the Moguls of India, for example, except their name. The cognitive psychologist knows that, for something to make it to long-term memory and stay there, repetition is required. That’s why I may have forgotten the quadratic equation in the 40 years since I last used it, but someone who used it for 10 or 20 years never will forget it. Repetition helps us learn and reinforcement over time helps us retain. We won’t have time for either unless we cut something out of our curricula to make room for it.

So, in core subject matter courses, we can at least battle over fewer ideas. This won’t help much with biology, where evolution is the grand unifying idea, but it might be helpful everywhere else.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Merit Pay for Teachers

Should K–12 teachers be paid according to how well their students learn? This is one of those ideas that sounds like a no-brainer. After all, aren’t other professionals routinely evaluated and compensated in some way that relates to their accomplishments? Why shouldn’t teachers, too, be rated on their effectiveness and paid more when they do a better job?

The problem, it seems to me, is how their effectiveness can be fairly evaluated. Looking at student outcomes seems reasonable, but that is not simple. We tend to oversimplify it by judging what children learned on the basis of achievement test scores. Most would agree that absolute score differences (just higher scores) are no measure of teacher effectiveness. Obviously, not all students of the same grade begin the year at the same level or possess the same skills. If we used that measure, everyone would fight to teach only the most gifted and motivated students.

So, should we use a growth or value-added model, to see whether individual children show a year’s progress in a year? I ran across a very entertaining video in which cognitive psychologist and University of Virginia Prof. Daniel Willingham describes — in less than three minutes! — six problems (some conceptual, some statistical) with evaluating teachers by comparing student achievement in the fall and in the spring. Among them are biased data when some children move away during the year, the effect of others on how teachers do (such as the help or hindrance of a building administrator), and the effect of peers — is the classroom cohort rowdy or well-behaved? I’ve spent enough time in classrooms to know that sometimes there is a student who seems to suck all the oxygen out of the room, making life difficult for everyone else. I might add that some years (when going through a messy divorce, or when grieving the loss of a child or a spouse) will find a typically great teacher unable to think or function as well as usual. Should she be fired? Are her students permanently harmed? I think of the lessons in compassion and in dealing with difficult people that I and my children learned from such sub-optimal school years — which reminds me of all we learn that is useful in life but not evaluated on tests.

A related conceptual problem with using test scores is that they focus on short-term gains. Most of us, in higher education and then in adult life, did not find that only discrete bits of information were important. Broader knowledge and skills — and especially the abilities to research, evaluate, learn, and apply things on our own — were much more vital to our success. Yet these skills are not evaluated on most tests.

Portfolios of student work give a superior picture of student abilities, but they would be very expensive and time-consuming to evaluate in a fair way. If we cannot find the time or money for essays in our achievement tests, then, realistically, we’ll never use portfolios.

This hints at the major problem with test results as a measure of student learning: in order to make massive testing programs at all affordable, we have made them much less valid over the years. Our MEAP writing test, for example, used to require legions of low-paid evaluators. Not only was this very expensive, and so time-consuming that Michigan was penalized by the federal government for being late with the scores (under No Child Left Behind rules), but it proved nearly impossible to get consistent grading from so many evaluators. So, the writing test today involves very little actual writing.

You get what you measure, especially if the tests have high stakes, and we are not measuring the complex skills that our children need for life success. Even the gains we do measure can be evanescent, disappearing soon after the tests were scored.

Professor of education at California State University, Monterey Bay, Nicholas Meier (rightly) fears that basing teacher pay on test scores will encourage even more focus on test fodder and test preparation alone, at the expense of more worthwhile endeavors. I recently heard an impassioned speech about education outreach plans for the Yankee Air Museum that involved teaching children forgotten history and engaging them in exciting activities, since schools no longer do. My reaction was a sad acknowledgment that, yes, if it’s not on the MEAP, our teachers don’t have time for it anymore. We trade hundreds of students (and their indispensable funding!) back and forth every year with charters and schools of choice — and those decisions are most likely made on the basis of test scores. The draconian penalties levied by NCLB are base largely on test scores. And now we want to raise the stakes by basing teacher pay and job security on them too?

Dr. Meier says this better than I could: “There is an axiom in the social sciences known as Campbell’s Law that says that the higher the stakes on a particular social indicator (e.g., a single test score), the more the use of that indicator corrupts the original intent, as it encourages people to manipulate the system to look good on that indicator regardless of other effects. We see that happening already—retaining students so they take the easier test; pushing kids to disappear from the system. There is the focus on the kids that show the most promise of moving from one category to the next, while ignoring others. Not to mention the examples of out and out cheating….”

So, no, I have little hope that pay for performance will improve public education.

There are other ways to evaluate teachers, of course, with classroom observation being a time-honored one. This tends to be more of a good idea than a good practice, though, as it is done too rarely for validity. As a young teacher in my family put it: “Who will be doing my evaluation? Will it be an administrator who has classroom experience? If so, will that be experience in my field or something totally unrelated? Are those responsible for my evaluation familiar with the standards the students are expected to achieve? If not I would question, seriously, the reliability of their judgment.”

When you think about it, there is a good reason many teachers are suspicious and fearful about the performance-based evaluation required by the federal Race to the Top education funding program. If they are unconvinced of the fairness or validity of evaluation by their own administrators, think how much less confident they must be about the judgment of state legislators (who have changed laws to comply with RttT) in this matter.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Achievement Gap or “Vacation Gap”?

Probably the single thing that everyone involved with or concerned about public education can agree upon is this: some children — often minority or English language–learning, but almost always “economically disadvantaged” — have not done as well as others. We usually call this the Achievement Gap, and the Bush administration’s No Child Left Behind was intended to close such gaps. Race to the Top, the Obama administration’s variation on the theme of using carrots and sticks to fix our schools, is equally concerned with closing the gaps. The idea is to have all our children — rich and poor, white and minority, native English speakers and not, those with disabilities and not, boys and girls, migrants and not — becoming equally well educated.

Of course, we don’t define, let alone validly measure, how well they are educated. But we do use the proxy of achievement test scores, assuming that these will correlate with our true objective of producing adults who can function well in society.

Some children come to schools in some way handicapped — they start the race from further behind and run it without the ongoing advantages of other children. These are the ones who need something different and/or something more than what appears to work for the high-achieving students. The assumption, implicit in the critical view of teachers that has now become commonplace, is that schools simply are not getting the job done for under-achieving students.

In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell tears into this and other mythical ideas about who succeeds and who does not. He looks at several keys to success — specific and unusual opportunities, perfect timing (month and year of birth), cultural advantages and disadvantages — to make the case that no one is “self-made.” One of his most interesting bits of evidence directly relates to achievement gaps.

Gladwell reviews in some detail a study done by Johns Hopkins sociologist Karl Alexander of hundreds poor, middle-class, and wealthy children in 20 Baltimore City public schools. This longitudinal Beginning School Study started in 1982 and is ongoing, but the results from just the elementary years seemed to demonstrate something important, as reported in 2007 by Entwhisle, Alexander, and Olson in a journal article titled, “Lasting consequences of the summer learning gap.”

The children studied began first grade in different places, but the achievement gap between high- and low-socioeconomic-status children nearly doubled over the elementary school years. But neither differences in native ability nor in teaching quality explained this phenomenon. Because they were given the California Achievement Test at the beginning and the end of each year, test results could show that poor children actually “out-learn” rich ones during the school year (at least insofar as CAT reading scores can indicate). During the summers, however, the poor children fall behind and the more privileged ones surge ahead. The achievement gap really stems from what is not happening for poor children when they are not in school.

This makes sense if you assume one set of children benefits from a more enriched environment (travel, camps, museums, plenty of reading material), but there is also evidence that the differences can be compensated for. The KIPP charter schools, for example, seem to do very well with disadvantaged children — but those children spend more than twice as much time in school, including much longer days, Saturdays, and summer sessions. Simply addressing the books-at-home gap, however, can have startlingly large effects on children's reading skills. Many studies have found strong correlations among the number of books in the home, the amount of voluntary reading done by children, and their tested reading levels — and this can be fixed. One way, which I noted earlier, is to pay children $2 to read and answer quizzes on books. Another is to give them books to read over the summer (remember, these are kids who cannot or do not get to the public library).

You can read one such study, reported on by James Kim, in which more than 500 children were each mailed 8 books during July and August. “The estimated treatment effects on a standardized test of reading achievement (Iowa Test of Basic Skills) were largest for students who reported owning fewer books at home, less fluent readers, and minority students. These findings suggest that a voluntary summer reading intervention may represent a scaleable and cost-effective policy for improving reading achievement among lower-performing students.”

Makes me want to collect old children's books from friends my age and start giving them away....